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Interior Design and Celebrity Culture.

Updated: Feb 27, 2022



I have disliked HGTV almost since its founding in 1994. As a practicing interior design professional at the time, I was excited at the prospect of educating millions of people about how they could achieve a good, attractive and practical design for their own home.

I never once imagined that other factors would overtake the original mission, as I understood it.

To be clear, I have nothing against the notion of an interior designer as a "celebrity". Where I have a problem is when overblown attention is placed on a charismatic person who lacks the proper credentials.

There are thousands of talented individuals who have the ability to create beautiful interiors, but only a person who is educated in architecture or interior design has the knowledge to tackle a project beyond the aesthetics.

HGTV initially had the right idea.

Like its namesake magazine, it was popularly assumed that the network’s goal would be to disseminate practical information about how to make a house into Home. But the parent company, Corus Entertainment, has as its mission "to be globally recognized as Canada’s most influential entertainment company", seemingly at odds with the more noble goal of education.

Quickly, the network's focus appeared to wane as "design and decoration' was overtaken by "entertainment and celebrities".

There is no doubt that the roster of personalities who grace HGTV programming have talent.

Throughout the first two years of lockdown, I watched more HGTV shows than I will ever admit and became increasingly disillusioned with their simplistic approach to design.

It was almost irritating to me to see how everyone was treated as an expert on every subject, and how every project turns out exactly as planned and usually exactly on budget.

It is safe to say that most of us want our built environments, the spaces in which we live, work, shop and play, to both look great and work great.

Yet this is where HGTV has dropped the ball and focusses on sameness, conformity and unexceptional design. It is no longer a network dedicated to bettering our homes and gardens (in fact, it’s rarely about gardens at all).


HGTV is all about celebrities and "personalities". The show hosts, the “celebrities” are the focus of each program. Often times, they appear inappropriately dressed for a construction site, as they flit through the space tossing out demands like: “I want to get rid of this wall to be able to see right through the house”, without any thought for structural integrity or whether their client would agree, or “let’s bring the hardwood right up to the front door”, without considering (in Eastern Canada at least) the salt, sand and wet snow that gets dragged in throughout the winter.


I am utterly amazed at how many husband-and-wife teams work in the industry. In my 40-plus years working in the industry, I have yet to meet one husband-and-wife team (possibly because HGTV has hired them all).

In HGTV world, the husband celebrity is a great contractor/builder, and the wife celebrity is a top-notch designer. Without knowing the credentials of these "designers", I suspect that each of these shows has a team of accredited designers working in the background.

This astounding roster of builder/designer couples include, among others: Chip and Joanna, Dave and Jenny, Dave and Kourtney*, Ben and Erin, Courtney and Robert, Brian and Sarah, Tarek and Christina**, Egypt and Mike, Bristol and Aubrey, Janna and Paul, Samantha and Colin, Andy and Ashley, Brian and Mika, Ashley and Berret, DeRon and Page and Luke and Clint (technically not a couple, but they sure as hell act like one).

When preparing to watch an HGTV show, it is fun to make a game of predicting the “final look”; the materials they will use, along with the prescribed colour palette. Here's a tip: You will always win if you include:

  • Two tones of grey on a base of white walls and trim;

  • 12 X 24 floor tile where appropriate (or not);

  • Moroccan pattern accent tiles;

  • “penny” tile on the shower floor;

  • the fireplace refitted with a slab of marble and a thick plank of wood emulating the mantel.

  • dark wood floors for a “more” sophisticated look (more sophisticated than what?);

  • a kitchen island, whether or not there is enough space for one, feature a “live edge” or (they can mix-it-up sometimes) “waterfall” counter top;

  • a cool blue for that much-needed “pop” of colour, whatever that means.


On a serious note, it is profoundly disappointing that every program that I have seen has missed an opportunity to introduce the principles of Universal design.

Possibly the worst offender is one of my favourite new shows, "Making it Home with Kortney and Kenny".

On a recent episode, the house was being designed for the owners’ aging parents. “Ah!”. I thought, “Finally an opportunity to educate the public in why it’s important to integrate the principles of Universal design, and how to do it practically and aesthetically!” I was glued to the TV screen for an hour as the ebullient host chirped about “happy colours” and “bringing more light into the space”.

Early in the episode, the husband-and-wife owners explain how they chose this bungalow because everything was on one floor and “if stairs became an issue for her parents, they wouldn’t have to deal with them.

Yet with a seeming disregard for that important comment, the host announced how the new design would (I swear) “take over the entire ground floor so that the whole family could enjoy the space”.

A tiny powder room (certainly not big enough to accommodate a walker or wheelchair) would be tucked in one corner. Then (I am not making this up) the entire lower level (“not a basement!”, she chimed) would be the elderly couple’s bedroom space.

There was talk about the possible future need for live-in help, but only a passing comment about building a bedroom downstairs. Presumably not far from the washer and dryer.

During the reveal, there were plenty of smiles and pleasant talk about the brightness and openness of the space, but occasionally you would see Grandma’s eyes dart over towards the staircase as if to say: “So, I’m going to be trucking up and down those stairs for the rest of my life, huh?”

Not a single reference to “Aging in Place”, “accessible design”, nor any other reasonable consideration for an aging couple. No suggestion that, if needed, a stairlift or residential elevator could be incorporated easily. No suggestion how Grandpa, “who loves gardening” was going to access his beloved back yard should he require mobility aids, or for that matter, how little Grandson with, say a cast and crutches, would be helpful to his grandfather.

But boy, what natural light. And the whole family can visit!

Although this episode was the most blatant, time after time, HGTV programming completely ignores the important subject of Universal design even when one or more of the homeowners is a little person, has a hearing or visual limitation, or rolls through life in a wheelchair.

I have only ever seen one show episode (I believe it was “Love it or List it) that featured the family matriarch who had MS and lived with a motorized wheelchair. Yes, they widened door openings and created a larger, more accessible kitchen, but jumped right over the issue of climbing the three or four steps needed to get into the house.

I am not the first to mention the obviously manufactured storylines. They are difficult to ignore.

It is almost laughable to watch the female house hunter (as if seeing it for the 20th time when she enters the space with the toilet and sink) exclaim to male house hunter: “Oh, and here’s the bathroom”. To which he replies: “Very nice”. “Clean.” And she responds: “We can easily change it”.

Let’s face it, despite how much fun it is to watch, you know deep down, that they have already bought and

moved into a new place. Especially when the narrator suggests: “… and two weeks later, they are all unpacked.”

In what universe does a person see their dream home for the first time, negotiates for it, buys it, packs up,

moves, unpacks, and organizes the new home within two weeks of closing? I mean, besides me.

The timing of some HGTV renovations is suspect.

Those overnight or weekend renovations apparently use products that are unavailable to most mere mortals: glues that dry solid and sturdy, on contact; wall paints and floor finishes that go on with no effort, no smell. and no drying time needed.

Some of those transformations appear beautiful in front of the camera, but I can’t help wondering what is left to do even at the "reveal".

In more than 40 years of working on home renovation projects, I have never had a single job 100 percent complete on the day the client moved in. There is almost always something more to do, usually things that were backordered, put off until last or delayed for any number of reasons.

Furthermore, only twice was I involved in a three-day project. One was a government project that I began on Friday afternoon and was expected to finish by Monday morning.

It was only the insane budget that allowed me to hire and pay a premium to as many tradespeople as I needed, and obtain, at a premium, anything I needed within the impossible timeline.

The second time was a bit of fun between friends where we “traded spaces” for the weekend and redecorated each other’s bedrooms. (I was generally happy with the result, but I did have to repaint. Who paints purple walls with brown trim?)

During the reveal on a recent episode of Home Time, I recall noticing a blotch of paint that had not been scraped from a French door pane. I distinctly saw Ben notice it, and discretely shift his “bear” body frame in a way to hide the offending door from the camera. It was at once cute, and embarrassing.


Above everything else, HGTV has created unrealistic expectations in the minds of many clients, and when the cruel truths are explained to them, they become confused and disappointed.

“I don’t get why $2,000 isn’t enough to do my kitchen”.

Well, it is if you just want a new refrigerator.

Or:

“Why will this take eight-to-ten weeks to complete?” “I’ve seen it done in half that time”.

Then I, under my breath respond: “Then do it in half that time”. #hgtv



Footnotes

* Dave and Kourtney have divorced and Kourtney is now paired, professionally, with Kenny.

** Tarek and Christina have divorced and now each have their own show, in addition to their original show.

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